ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
Fatal shootings at the hands of police have been in the spotlight this year. Now, news and civil liberties organizations are tracking such encounters. The Washington Post is the latest to do so. In a moment, we'll hear about the statistics they collected, including instances when mental illness played a role in fatal encounters with police. But first, the efforts of one police department. The LAPD has the nation's largest mental health policing program of its kind. Their Mental Evaluation Unit works to diffuse thousands of situations involving mental health crises every year. Stephanie O'Neill of member station KPCC has the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
OFFICER TED SIMOLA: Mental Evaluation, Officer Simola, can I help you?
OFFICER HARPER: Hey, how you doing, this is Officer Harper from West LA.
SIMOLA: What's going on, Harper?
STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Here on the sixth floor of LAPD headquarters, Officer Ted Simola and his colleagues in the Mental Evaluation Unit partner with county mental health workers. Together, they provide crisis intervention to people with mental illness who come into contact with police. Simola's working the triage desk this morning where it's his job to help street cops evaluate and deal with those experiencing a mental health crisis.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)
HARPER: Call came out as a male with mental illness. I guess he was inside of a bank. They said he was talking to himself, he urinated outside.
O'NEILL: This call, involving a 60-year-old man with paranoid schizophrenia, is typical of the more than 14,000 that rang into the unit's triage desk last year. If it were another department, this man might be put into the back of a police car and driven to jail so that the patrol officer could get back to work more quickly. But LAPD policy requires all officers who respond to a call in which mental illness may be a factor to phone the triage desk for assistance in evaluating the person's condition.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)
SIMOLA: Paranoid, disorganized - that type of thing?
HARPER: Yeah, he's talking about a lot of Steven Seagal; something about Jackie Chan.
SIMOLA: OK. Does he know what kind of medication he's supposed to have?
O'NEILL: The triage officers are, in essence, a resource for street cops, and part of their job entails deciding which calls warrant an in-person visit from the unit's 18 cop-clinician teams. These teams - which operate as second responders - last year, assisted patrol in more than 4,700 calls. Sometimes the work they do involves high-profile stuff, like assisting SWAT teams with dangerous standoffs or talking a jumper off a ledge. But on most days, it involves relieving patrol officers of time-consuming mental health calls like the one Simola is helping assess. The man involved in this call has three outstanding warrants for low-grade misdemeanors, including public drinking. Technically, any of them qualifies him for arrest, but, Simola says, today, he won't be carted off to jail.
SIMOLA: He'll have to appear on the warrants later, but immediately he'll get treated for his mental health.
PETER ELIASBERG: It's exactly the right thing to be doing at that initial step.
O'NEILL: Peter Eliasberg is legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
ELIASBERG: The goal is to make sure that people who are mentally ill, who are not a danger to the community, are moved towards getting treatment and services as opposed to getting booked and taken into the jail.
O'NEILL: Detective Charles Dempsey heads training for LA's Mental Evaluation Unit. He says pairing a cop or detective with a county mental health worker means the duo can discuss both the criminal justice records that the health worker isn't privy to and the medical records that a cop can't access due to privacy laws. About two-thirds of the calls, he says, resolve successfully.
DETECTIVE CHARLES DEMPSEY: One-time crisis - we engage them, they get help, they get services, and we never hear from them again.
O'NEILL: But there are complicated cases, too, and these, Dempsey says, are assigned to the unit's detective-clinician teams. Dempsey says most of the 700 cases they handled last year involved both those whose mental illness causes them to heavily use or abuse emergency services and those at greatest risk for violent encounters with police and others.
DEMPSEY: So they are very complicated cases, and it requires a lot more work.
O'NEILL: For nearly a decade, the LAPD has helped train dozens of agencies, both in and out of the U.S., in this type of specialized policing. Its emphasis - diversion over incarceration for those who qualify. Lieutenant Lionel Garcia commanded the unit for seven years, until his retirement in April.
LIEUTENANT LIONEL GARCIA: Low-grade misdemeanors - we'll try to divert them to placement rather than an arrest. If it's a felony in this city, they're going to jail.
O'NEILL: Last year, Garcia says about eight and a half percent of the calls resulted in the person getting arrested and jailed. When that happens, he says, the unit tracks the person through custody and then, upon their release, reaches out to them with links to services.
MARK GALE: It's just common sense.
O'NEILL: Mark Gale serves as criminal justice chairman for the LA County Council of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
GALE: Jails were not set up to be treatment facilities. People get worse in jail.
O'NEILL: Gale and other mental health advocates applaud the LAPD Mental Evaluation Unit's work and call it a good first step. But for diversion to work well, they say, the city and county need to provide treatment programs at each point a mentally ill person comes into contact with the criminal justice system. From interactions with cops all the way through the courts. For NPR News I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)
SIMOLA: All right, 14-1-king-1-1-5's at the station already there for you, OK?
WESTERVELT: That story was part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KPCC and Kaiser Health News.
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